Nature’s Neighborhood, The Toledo Zoo’s new children’s zoo, offers many great opportunities to encounter the natural world all year round, and the leafcutter ant exhibit is one of the most fascinating.
The tiny insects are a wonder of nature and now that the leafcutter ants have populated their entire exhibit, they offer even more opportunities for learning and fun.
Native to Central America, South America and parts of North America, leafcutter ants use their large jaws to cut off bits of leaves, which they carry great distances to underground chambers. There the leaves provide a sort of compost that helps grow the fungus on which the ants feed.
In Nature’s Neighborhood, the zoo has created an exhibit that allows the ants to replicate this behavior in a way that’s also engaging and interactive for kids. The ants travel through nearly 80 feet of clear tubing from a fungal garden area at one end of the exhibit toward the leaf cutting area at the other end. There they gather the leaf bits, which they then carry back to the garden area.
Children who encounter the leafcutter ants can not only watch their progress in person and on a special “ant-cam,” but they can also monitor their movements and record their results. Through this inquiry-based approach, children are encouraged to ask and answer their own questions, promoting scientific curiosity and inspiring in them an appreciation for the natural world.
Each leafcutter ant plays a role in the larger community. Some ants patrol the perimeter of the nest, warding off predators. Other ants are responsible for the carrying of the leaf parts. Each colony also has a queen. To mimic this division of labor, Nature’s Neighborhood also features a dress-up area, where the youngest visitors can pretend to be a human counterpart to these ants. For young children, play is a highly effective way to encourage learning, and Nature’s Neighborhood lets them do just that.
The Toledo Zoo, open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is located on the Anthony Wayne Trail (US 25), four miles south of downtown Toledo. For more information, visit www.toledozoo.org or call 419-385-4040.
Lucas County residents are admitted free of charge each Monday from 10 a.m. to noon. ID showing proof of residency is required.